By Ann Schwend, Montana Standard

Montana’s explosive popularity is stretching capacity and resources to the breaking point. Many communities are bursting at the seams, pushing development onto farmlands, dangerously siting homes within the wildland-urban interface, and building precipitously close to flooding rivers. The changing climate is exacerbating these impacts by affecting water supplies (droughts and floods) and increasing the incidence of severe wildfires. We need a variety of affordable housing options to accommodate all Montanans, but what we do on the landscape, and where we choose to develop, will be critical in determining the future of Montana’s communities and the health of our environment.

Looking to our past legislative sessions may help predict what we see for proposed “solutions.” A number of bills were introduced in the 2021 Session that would have limited the ability for local communities to adequately plan for their future and protect those things they value. Thankfully, most of these bills were rejected by the Legislature because they were knee-jerk reactions, poorly thought out, and had little support. The 2023 Session is right around the corner, and housing and planning issues are rising to the top. We expect to see several proposals for how to reform our land use and planning laws. Some of these proposals recommend state mandated approaches to planning, which would undermine local control.

Without a doubt, it is time to modernize Montana’s land use planning laws. But prescribing cures without diagnosing all of the symptoms will not resolve the underlying issues. We need to zoom out and do a thorough analysis of environmental concerns, community infrastructure, and housing needs first and then use that data to inform and implement responsive policies. We need to recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for a crisis as complex as equitable housing across a state as large and diverse as Montana.

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